Monday, July 15, 2019

Bovey Tracey, Devon


Something for the weakened

I do like bits of traditional signage. Today's high streets are too full of ephemeral plastic signs, designed by computers with the help of committees, plonked on facades with one thought only: to shout loudest at passers-by. Many high street businesses have either given up or seem to be trying too hard, buses drive around swamped in graceless advertisements like walking billboards, and round my way the Co-op screams at me in a sign of bilious green.*

There are, though, quite a few places where an effort has been made to stop this rot. Bath is a haven of decent, discreet signage; so is Chipping Campden; towns like Ludlow have some terrific examples of traditional shop signs; in Upton on Severn they have even revealed a number of beautiful old ghost signs and have found ways to keep these visible while creating new signs that work among and around them. More often, it's a mixed picture, with lacklustre stuff interspersed with signs in which someone has been allowed to get out his brush and mahl stick and do his best.

My eyes having been rendered bloodshot by poor signage recently, and my spirits weakened by the sheer oafishness of some of it, it was good to come across one or two modest gems. Like this barber's in Bovey Tracey. It could hardly be simpler. Just a small square window, without anything much to display in it. And a sign which, though simple, shows that someone has paused, and thought, and cared. Plain, sans serif capitals, hand painted; a colour scheme that reflects the traditional barber's pole†, and a frame for the sign in the same red as the window frame.

Screw the sign firmly to the wall and you're done. Locals are reminded where a chap can get a haircut and visitors are shown the way too. The simple purposefulness of the sign suggests a good old-fashioned barber's shop, where a man will ply his scissors with skill and a cut-throat razor will be on hand to smarten you up around the edges. Will there by Brylcreem? Maybe.§ Vitalis? Possibly.¶ Will the barber ask quietly under his breath if the customer would like 'Something for the weekend'? Perhaps. But whatever the answers to these nostalgic questions, the appreciative passer-by will be pleased with the look of the shop and its sign, and will proceed with his jaded spirits uplifted. For surely such things are indeed something for the weakened.

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* That's enough bile from me for now. I do try to restrain myself when writing my posts, and I steer clear of commenting about some of the bad architecture around us. Others do that better than I could, and I'm happy that they do. My role in general is to share what I appreciate and like.

† The traditional sign, the red of which is sometimes said represent the blood let during the barber-surgeon's work. Curiously from a modern perspective, the two 'trades' of barbering and surgery were combined in the Middle Ages and early modern period.

§ Brylcreem, fashionable in during World War II and the post-war period, certainly still exists as a range that includes the 'traditional' hair cream. As can be seen from my photograph, the barber's wasn't open on the day I was there, so I was unable to investigate the interior, its contents, or what might be offered to customers.

¶ Vitalis, something on my barber's shelf when I was a boy, is marketed as a 'hair tonic' that makes your hair more 'manageable'.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sticklepath, Devon


The Quaker graveyard in Sticklepath

I came to Sticklepath by accident, stopping there because the village shop advertised coffee, which I needed. I didn’t have time to visit the place’s most obvious attraction, the Finch Foundry (a working forge, not a foundry) other than pausing to admire its water wheel from beneath the head race, dodging drips as I watched the ironwork turn. But I did stop for a moment in the Quaker graveyard behind the forge, for a short contemplative break, and to wait for the clouds to part and the sun to shine on the tiny structure in my photograph.

It’s a shelter in one corner of the graveyard. I’ve no idea how old it is – the very solid looking walls seem to have some age, but the lovely thatched roof is recent, though no doubt a replacement of earlier thatch, perhaps of many generations of earlier thatch. It’s tiny, just big enough to contain a bench seat with room for two, looking out over the graves. It seemed to me to be an excellent example of the value of taking pains over a modest structure: how much pleasure it must have given, over the years, to people who need a rest, and to those who just like to see something well made.

I don’t usually feel morbid in graveyards and, in spite of the proximity of the tables where visitors to the forge could take refreshments, the place was quiet and peaceful. Could I hear the occasional drip and splash from the water wheel? Maybe. I’m not sure. I don’t recall noticing it, but if I had it would have seemed a sound fit as much for calm as anything. The mood was enhanced by a poem by the hymn-writer and humanitarian James Montgomery (1771–1854) about just such a place.* The words are hand painted on a noticeboard attached to the back of the shelter. The poem seemed apposite: it ends:

Green myrtles fenced it, and beyond their bound
Ran the clear rill with ever-murmuring sound.
Twas not a scene for grief to nourish care,
It breathed of hope & moved the heart to prayer.

They’re lines very much of their time, and somewhat conventional, but well made and right – like the little shelter that contains them, and no doubt the products of the forge nearby. Fortified by such thoughts – or maybe by the coffee – I went on my way.

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*James Montgomery was just a name to me, someone whose work was praised by Lord Byron. He seems to have been a good egg, supporting abolitionism, upholding the right of protestors to make their case, and writing a poem against the practice of employing small boys to climb up chimneys to sweep them. He wrote the carol ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’ and adapted Psalm 23 to create the hymn ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Ashburton, Devon


Hung well

When I was staring at the medieval arch in my previous post and checking my camera, a woman came up to me and said that if I liked old buildings, I should look at one a couple of doors along the street. This was a slate-hung building with a very unusual set of shapes cut into the slates. I told her I’d already spotted it and she said that the shapes cut into the slates – hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades – were there because the building was once ‘a gaming house’. I've not been able to find any reference to this history in books or online – I have few books on Devon apart from the usual Pevsner and Shell Guides. It’s possible, but it’s equally likely that someone just liked the shapes and had a bright idea about how to use them them.
As with the arch in the previous post, it’s interesting to think about this history, but my appreciation of buildings relates at least as much to aesthetics as to their usefulness or the ways they may have been used in the past. I like the way this building looks, with its slate-hung  walls, its twin gables over an overhanging, dentil cornice, and its sash windows with their small panes in the Georgian style. I hope the current occupiers (the Co-op) are proud of it.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Ashburton, Devon


The sweep of history

Places like Ashburton warm the cockles of my heart. Any small town with an ironmonger and a bookshop is bound to please me. Anywhere with a good selection of charming houses, dating from the medieval period to the 19th century, is likely to please me too. Put the two together, with some decent coffee shops and a smattering of other eateries and pubs eateries, and you have a winner.

I was, of course, immediately attracted to this medieval arch, around which later buildings have grown up and multiplied with a casualness which, combined with slate-hung walls, or timber framing, or decent brickwork, makes satisfying townscape. That sort of satisfying milieu is just the context here, and the arch, charmingly encumbered with washing-up bowls, dog baskets, and other impedimenta of ironmongery, plays its part. It’s thought to be late-medieval, and looks it, and there have been remodellings in various periods, from the 16th century onwards

The building must have changed use a few times. It is said to have once been the Mermaid Inn. It’s easy to start fantasizing about the life this building has seen – everything from drunken brawls to debates about the merits of plastic and galvanized metal buckets – and this modest building played a part in at least one of the pivotal phases of the great sweep of English history. It’s reported that General Fairfax, Parliamentary General of Horse and supreme commander (before he was replaced with Cromwell when he refused to march against the Scots, who supported Charles II), stayed here after he drove the Royalists out of the town on 10 January 1646.

Fairfax is certainly a figure worth remembering, but this small medieval building, with its arch made of huge chunks of granite, is worth looking at for itself. Not least because medieval town houses are unusual. In Devon they’re almost as scarce as hens’ teeth.

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* During their advance into the West Country, the Parliamentary army were active in Tiverton, Bovey Tracey, Torrington, Launceston, and Truro. There is more information here.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Varieties of architectural experience


Susannah Charlton, Elain Harwood, and Clare Price (eds), 100 Churches 100 Years
Published by Batsford


Lots of people like visiting churches, but the image of the traditional ‘church crawler’ is of someone who likes old buildings – and often old buildings in the countryside. That range of interests excludes most 20th-century churches, which are widely seen as assertively modernist and are most frequently in towns. So 20th-century churches tend to be neglected by visitors, except for experts and the growing number of enthusiasts for the art and design of the last 100 years. This new book, published under the auspices of the Twentieth Century Society, presents a fresh look at British church architecture between 1914 and 2015, revealing the field to be rich and full of surprises.

The range is enormous. The period is not all about rebarbative modernism. It embraces such fine buildings as St Alphege, Bath (designed in the style of an early Roman basilica by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott) and St Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough (Ninian Comper’s masterpiece, in a style that blends Gothic and Renaissance); or St Saviour, Eltham, London (by Cachemaille-Day, Welch & Lander, under the influence of German expressionism) and neo-Byzantine St John the Baptist, Rochdale (by Hill, Sandy & Norris, with glittering mosaics by Eric Newton). There’s modernism aplenty too, like St John the Baptist, Lincoln, where architect Sam Scorer and engineer Kálmán Hajnal-Kónyi contrived a hyperbolic paraboloid roof of breathtaking sweep, or, yes Brutalist-fanciers, the sad, decaying corpse of St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross, a concrete masterpiece (‘already British modernism’s most spectacular and erudite ruin’) that’s quietly rotting away.

One hundred of these diverse examples, each glowingly photographed and briefly described, make up the body of the book. There’s also a series of short chapters on notable architects and practices – including Edward Maufe, H. S. Goodhart-Rendell, George Pace, and Gillespie, Kidd & Coia (the latter the progenitors of the ruin of Cardross). And in addition the editors have called into being specialist chapters including revealing surveys by Jane Brocket on stained glass and by Alan Powers on the art and artefacts, from fonts to altars, murals to lettering, that enhance many of these buildings.

It’s often the art that lingers longest in my mind when I visit these 20th-century churches, but the book is more than a series of portraits of single buildings and fine artworks. It also gives a sense of how changing ideas about religious practice, different artistic influences from Europe, and varying social and economic conditions have influenced the architecture.  So we get a sense of the variety of architectural choices – but also the monetary constraints – at play in the 1930s, of the moves towards liturgical reform in the late-1950s and 1960s, of the influence today of the changing landscape of faiths (the subject of another specialist chapter, by Kate Jordan). And so the change and variety continue, and along with them the plenitude of artistic and architectural interest. 100 Churches 100 Years will inspire many to seek these qualities out.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

From Berlin to Britain


Alan Powers, Bauhaus Goes West: Modern Art and Design in Britain and America
Published by Thames & Hudson


This year marks the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Bauhaus, the influential German school of design that began in Weimar before moving to Dessau and finally to Berlin. The school nurtured so many artists, designers, and architects who were pivotal to the modern movement during the 20th century. Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and László Moholy-Nagy were all at the Bauhaus: Gropius was its founder; Breuer was a student and then a teacher there; Moholy taught the famous foundation course, as well as heading the metal workshop. All three spent time in Britain after the institution closed under pressure from the Nazis in 1933. Other less well known Bauhäusler came to Britain too, a small host of people such as teacher and textile artist Margaret Leischner and Otto Neurath, an associate of many Bauhaus people, who created the important ‘picture-language’ system called Isotype. All these, and many more, appear in Alan Powers’ Bauhaus Goes West, a highly informative and readable study of the school’s influence on British art and design.

The British work of each of the ‘greats’ (Gropius, Breuer, Moholy-Nagy) merits its own chapter, and these chapters throw up fascinating insights. We see Gropius building in timber and brick, in contrast to his more famous works in concrete; we learn of Breuer’s insistence that modernism need not be ‘cold’ or ‘mechanistic’, we find Moholy at work on a model of a future city for the film Things to Come. And we learn about the networks sustaining the modernists. An example is the various ventures of Jack Pritchard who was behind a company manufacturing plywood furniture and the now-famous Isokon flats in Lawn Road, North London, designed by Wells Coates but also involving Breuer. Indded Pritchard was pivotal in the British careers of Gropius, Breuer, and Moholy.

All this is fascinating, but perhaps still more so are Powers’ general chapters. One of these, ‘Elective Affinities: England and Germany’ outlines the relationship between the two countries in terms of design. It shows how British interest in modernism and modernist ideas predates the Bauhaus émigrés, tracing links between Britain and such architects as Erich Mendelsohn and Bruno Taut, and noticing items with modernist elements being exhibited– carved reliefs by Eric Gill, textiles by Phyllis Baron, Dorothy Larcher, and Enid Marx, to name but a few. As businessman and social reformer Harry Peach (who himself visited the Bauhaus at Dessau) said of Britain in 1927, ‘we had a modern movement’.

So Britain was fertile soil for the Bauhaus designers when they arrived, a point shown in another general chapter, ‘The People With No Taste: English Modernism in the 1930s’. This chapter title is of course ironic. Powers shows that there was plenty of taste around, and much of it involved appreciating modern design. It was possible, as Paul Nash famously said, both to ‘Go modern’ and to ‘Be British’. A host of examples – some starting before the Bauhäusler arrived, some under the émigrés’ influence – shows British modernism alive and kicking. Powers covers both the endeavours that showed people ready to appreciate modernism – the efforts of Nikolaus Pevsner, the Council for Art and Industry, the magazine Circle – and the actual products of the designers – from innovative light fittings to revolutionary school buildings.

For anyone looking for an introduction to this aspect of British modernist architecture and design, this book is an excellent place to start. For someone keen to refresh and sharpen their knowledge of the Bauhaus and its influence in Britain, Bauhaus Goes West is likewise truly enlightening.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Carving out a life


Alex Woodcock, King of Dust: Adventures in Forgotten Sculpture
Published by Little Toller Books


When I’m wandering about looking at old buildings, I often get into conversations with people. One of the most frequent comments I hear when standing in front of a beautifully crafted bit of masonry or carving is: ‘Of course you couldn't find anyone with the skill to do that now.’ I usually respond by pointing out that, although skilled stone masons and carvers are hardly thick on the ground, they do exist, in the workshops attached to our great cathedrals, for example. A few cathedrals, like my local one, Gloucester, retain a full-time group of masons who work away at the conservation of their cathedral’s ancient and fragile fabric – replacing worn stones, carving new corbels or gargoyles, and so on.

Alex Woodcock – an archaeologist, expert on medieval sculpture, and poet, among other things – knows all about this. He took a mid-life career turn, perceiving that he might learn more about stone carving by actually doing it, and training to become a mason and carver. Coincidentally, he cites the writing of Richard Sennnett (whose recent book on cities I reviewed in my previous post), who said that when ‘the head and the hand are separate…it is the head that suffers’. By learning how to make the sort of sculpture produced by the builders of medieval churches one should come to a deeper understanding of the ancient work.  

This book is Woodcock’s account of the route he took from fascinated student of medieval carving to fully trained carver working on the repair of the sculptures of Exeter cathedral. His narrative is absorbing, even moving, and full of insights into the way such a carver has to work. It is nourishingly rich with descriptions of different kinds of stone (Woodcock loves stone), knowingly alert to the qualities of tools such as mallets and chisels, and atmospherically thick with the dust and stone fragments of the mason’s yard. It is also full of descriptions and appreciations of the Romanesque carvings in parish churches in the English West Country. It’s hard to describe the appearance of these carvings briefly – Woodcock evokes it in a series of accounts of different churches, building to a picture of a style that, broadly, combines figures carved with a simple and powerful directness and ornamental patterns of sometimes great complexity but similar boldness. Anyone who doesn’t know these wonderful carvings – on doorways, crosses, baptismal fonts – will find the book an eye-opener.

Woodcock describes these carvings, which date from the 11th or 12th centuries, in a way that brings them alive in the imagination. He has a go at the scholars and writers who pigeonhole this sort of work as ‘crude’ or ‘primitive’ with the implication that it’s far inferior to the more ‘finished’ and ‘naturalistic’ Gothic sculpture that came after it. By contrast, he sees in the simplicity and clarity of the Romanesque carver’s lines and forms something of the power of modernist sculpture, comparing it to Brancusi. I agree. Woodcock is with the artists in this – John Piper loved this sort of thing, for example, as did Henry Moore – and the descriptions in this book are persuasive and are worthy to stand beside Piper's photographs.*

There’s a clue in those references to past artists and fellow-appreciators of the Romanesque, a clue to what makes this book stand out. It’s raised above the level of another ‘mid-life journey from crisis to fulfilment’ narrative by its deep appreciation of the ancient sculptures and by its admiration for past advocates of these neglected works. Among the book’s heroes, along with Piper, are people like the historian Kate Marie Clarke, who learned to understand and appreciate Norman fonts by making line drawings of them, and architect Philip Mainwaring Johnston, who restored churches and whose talent for drawing informed his sensitive work on medieval churches. These are all people for whom hand and head worked effectively together.

By the end of this book I was ready to give a triumphant cheer for Woodcock when he found employment as a stone mason, and was ready to believe I understood the carvings a lot better for reading his informed accounts of them. I now have another list of churches to visit and sculptures to look at. I was also ready to applaud Little Toller Books for publishing the book and for commissioning the excellent artist Ed Kluz to do the jacket. I hope that face smiles out across Britain's bookshops and that it attracts many buyers. I don't think they'll be disappointed.

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* If you can get hold of the Shell Guide to Dorset, look at Piper’s photograph of the font at Toller Fratrum to see what I mean.